For engineers, as the railways go, so goes Iraq

It's a little past 9 a.m. on a Tuesday, the height of the morning commute. But the platform at Baghdad's central rail station, which a few years back would have been bustling with activity, is abandoned.

Iraq's storied railways are a worthy barometer of progress in postwar Iraq. Much as the rings of a centuries old redwood reveal clues to a forest's past, Iraq's railroads offer traces of the forces and tumult that have wracked this region for much of the past century.

"This is among the great old companies of Iraq," says Salam Salom, the traffic and operations manager for the Iraqi Republic Railways Co. "Just as Iraq has risen, fallen, risen, and fallen again, so have the railroads. And like Iraq, they'll rise again."

The trains are both a legacy of European colonialism and a testament to Arab efforts to shake off that yoke. In the early years of the 20th century, Iraq's British-built railroads prospered. In European capitals, posters for the Simplon-Orient Express boasted, "London-Baghdad in eight days: safety, rapidity, economy." Mystery writer Agatha Christie made the trip in 1938, and used it as the basis for her novel, "Murder on the Orient Express."

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, Iraq's railroads were the thriving workhorse of an oil-fueled industrialization drive, transporting the bulk of the country's cement, oil, fertilizer, grain, and steel. Iraq was a model in the developing world at that time and its railroad men gained a reputation as first-class engineers.

"Everyone looked at the people who worked the railways with envy," Zuher Hadi Ali, the director of the Iraqi Railways Institute, says of his first days as a young railroading student. "You were someone. You had free housing, you got to travel all over the world to study. Working on the trains had prestige, and we were good at what we did."

Similarly, Iraq's transportation minister, Salam Malaki, a young political upstart, fondly recalls his first trip on a train as a 13-year-old boy in 1985.

"It was amazing," he says. "In the middle of summer, the temperature was 100-plus degrees, but the cars were all air conditioned. Waiters brought us food and cold drinks."

A $2 billion repair bill

On the few passenger trains still operating in Iraq today, the air conditioning has since ceased to function. A decade-long war with Iran, followed by a decade of UN sanctions, left the rails in poor shape. The US invasion in 2003 and the looting that followed decimated what was left. A postwar survey estimated that restoration would require $2 billion.

Rebuilding the railroads, essential to the country's economic recovery, was a US and Iraqi priority from Day 1. But despite $220 million in US aid, reconstruction has gone awry, with a lack of security, and rampant corruption taking a heavy toll. Like the country's electrical output, water treatment, and oil production, the railways are operating at just 3 percent of their prewar capacity, according to railroad officials.

Insurgent activity has stopped most train travel between the Iraqi capital and the south and to western Iraq, according to Iraqi railways spokesman Khames al-Rubai.

Going north, but not south or west

Those trains that do operate, do so infrequently. A ticket costs just 750 Iraqi dinars (50 cents), making it the cheapest form of transport, but few are willing to brave the journey. Just three largely empty passenger trains a week make the round trip from Baghdad to the northern city of Mosul. There's an additional passenger train that makes erratic trips between the province of Babel, just south of Baghdad, and Basra. Freight trains, the backbone of the railways, are even scarcer.

The tracks are in such poor condition that the trains travel at half speed, just 40 km/h. What should be a six-hour trip to Mosul, instead takes 10.

"The railroads are a real microcosm for the whole reconstruction issue over there," says Rick Degman, a former railway reconstruction adviser to the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority. "They've been stymied by the same things as everything else in the country."

The inability of the Iraqi government to provide a promised $3 million in funds has left a nearly rebuilt stretch of rail (with $25 million in US funds) sitting idle in southern Iraq.

In western Iraq the rails are idle as well. The US Marines did an estimated $3 million worth of damage to the tracks there during the siege of Fallujah in 2004. Farther west they have turned a crucial rail station into a US military base.

The vetting process for contractors has at times been haphazard. The US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) hired an ex-felon to provide spare parts for locomotives with predictable results.

"Any due diligence would have told you not to give a contract to this guy, but they did and he's delivered nothing on his contract," says Gordon Mott, the chief railway adviser to the CPA through 2004.

But like so much of the reconstruction effort here, the primary obstacle has simply been lack of security. The rails have become a favorite target for the insurgency. Three senior managers, five middle managers, and more than 20 railway employees have been killed by insurgents.

An ambitious project to renovate train stations throughout the country faltered when, rather than expose themselves to insurgent attacks, the US Army Corps of Engineers farmed out oversight to local contractors.

"It certainly appears that a lot of our well-intended money went down the drain on these station renovations because there was no one willing or able to actually provide meaningful supervision," says Mr. Mott.

But despite all of the setbacks and attacks, Iraqi and US officials involved with the railways are optimistic about the future of Iraq. Indeed, railway workers here share an outlook with their peers the world over. They are a unique breed with an almost fanatical commitment to making trains run.

"Many of our employees have died, but we will not stop," says Mr. Rubai, the Iraqi railways spokesman. "We insist on keeping the trains running."

While one doesn't have to look too hard to find a deep cynicism among many Iraqis, here on the rails, pessimists are surprisingly hard to come by.

"We could be the trading capital that connects Asia, the Middle East and Europe," says Rubai. "Can you imagine?"

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